Ben Wheatley will not be put in a box.
Pitch-dark family drama crime films, hardboiled-hitmen with relationship troubles becoming the targets of malevolent cults: and those are just his first two features. Each of Wheatley’s movies have a style all their own while still feeling like the work of one cohesive vision. Along with his team of semi-regular collaborators (screenwriter Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose), the director creates films that confound genre barriers before smashing them to bits. As a bonus, they also tend to be great films.
I’ve been beside myself since missing the one and only screening of Sightseers at this year’s IFFB (although the night after I was able to catch V/H/S/2, a very pleasant surprise).
Sightseers is the story of a relatively new couple in their middle thirties. Tina (Alice Lowe) is a dog person who lives with her mother, knits, and collects knicknacks. Her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) is bearded, ginger, enjoys the Tram Museum, and kills people. The pair load up in Chris’s caravan for a vacation that starts off quaint but builds a body-count quickly.
The humor in Sightseers may not be for everyone, but boy does it hit the spot for me. Lowe and Oram are both credited on the script, and in some ways it really is their movie. Wheatley’s direction is tight and Rose’s cinematography is gorgeous as usual (seriously, it’s hard to put into words how refreshing is it to watch a comedy without the cheap, flat image that usually dominates the genre), but it’s the two central performances that shine in this film.
Lowe and Oram are supremely funny and their weird, never-quite-with-it characters have a strange chemistry that sells the film not just as a horror/comedy, but as a fairly dead-on portrayal of a relationship that’s young enough so the boundaries and secrets still remain uncovered.
While laughs and gore are the fuel that the film runs on, there’s a thread of relationship commentary and even a hint of class warfare to round out the many textures of the film. Like all of Wheatley’s films up to this point, Sightseers is inextricable with its own British-ness. For example, around the halfway point of the film, in one of its funniest scenes, Chris uses a man’s social status as grounds for execution.
“300 years ago,” he tells Tina “his ancestor would have strode down a path…he’d have seen some common strumpet like you and thought to himself ‘I’m gonna have a bit o’ that'” Protecting Tina from the “Bloody Lord of the Manor” is Chris’s justification for his crime, and part of the shock (and, paradoxically, many of the laughs) of the film comes from when the couple stops searching for those (thin) justifications for their actions.
Kill List, the team’s last film, was one of my favorites of the last decade, and I feel that love was at least partly due to having been able to experience it on the big screen.
Alas, I caught Sightseers by renting it for my cable’s on demand service.
The good news is that I don’t think the film lost much without an audience, because I laughed. Even without the wonderful mass hypnosis that seems to happen in a crowded theater, the film was able to coax a few belly laughs out if me (I was even able to rewatch a key scene right after the film was over, eat that, theatrical experience!).
To summarize the film anymore would be to spoil it, just go rent it. It’s a road-movie that I can see myself revisiting in the coming months, and (much like Kill List) appreciating on each subsequent viewing.
Hollywood suits would probably try to bill the film as “Raising Arizona meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels“, as surface-level accurate as that kind of comparison is, it’s also reductive. For my own comparison, I’d say that the film falls somewhere closer to the stage and screen works of Martin McDonagh (the absurd, hilarious escalation of violence being the key feature there), but in the end it’s a production that only Wheatley and his crew could produce.